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Choreographer lands in W.Va. black schools hall of fame

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When Jamal Sims answers the phone, he's preparing for auditions for a new commercial.

"We're shooting a commercial for Microsoft," the choreographer said. "We're in the middle of auditioning 60 dancers for [an ad for] one of their new devices."

The commercial will be directed by John Chu, with whom Sims worked on the movies "Step Up 2 the Streets" and "Step Up 3D." Sims has been part of all four "Step Up" films, including "Step Up Revolution," which is in theaters now.

The Pomona, Calif., native is the Garnet High School Vanguard inductee at the West Virginia All Black Schools Sports and Academic Hall of Fame 2012 ceremony Aug. 10 in Charleston. "Vanguard" inductees are distinguished relatives of hall inductees -- Sims is the great-nephew of 2012 posthumous inductees Gurnett E. and Daniel Leroy Ferguson, brothers who lived in the Charleston area.

"I was [visiting West Virginia] as a kid, and I have all these pictures and stories about growing up in West Virginia," he said. "Now, being able to come back as an adult and really get to see it, I'm looking forward to that."

In addition to the "Step Up" films, other selected highlights from Sims' impressive choreography career include the 82nd and 83rd annual Academy Awards telecasts, 2007's "Hairspray" and last year's "Footloose" remake, as well as tours for Madonna, Britney Spears, Usher, Jennifer Lopez and Miley Cyrus (whom he worked with on "Hannah Montana: The Movie" as well). He also choreographed three numbers for Cirque du Soleil's "Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour."

Before he began creating dance moves, though, he performed them. His first job was in Michael Jackson's Egyptian-themed "Remember the Time" video in 1992. He was 17.

"There was an ad in the local paper, and a friend of mine challenged me to audition, so I did. That was my first job and first audition," said the 41-year-old, who originally envisioned himself as a singer.

Prior to that gig, Sims had no formal dance training.

"I learned everything off of MTV and 'Soul Train' growing up," he said.

After he began his career as a dancer, he began training in many types of dance. He said he's mainly hip-hop based but has "dabbled in everything throughout the years."

Sims danced for five years before switching fields to choreography at age 23.

"It was really organic. I've always loved to dance, but I always liked to create even more than dancing. I was always creating.

"I realized I had to stop being a dancer in order to choreograph. In Hollywood, it's always about perception. If people see you as a dancer, that's what you are, so I had to walk away."

He did, going to his agency and showing them a tape he'd made of choreography he'd created. They liked what they saw and submitted him for work on an Usher project: the video for the R&B superstar's single "You Make Me Wanna ..." off his breakout album "My Way."

Of all the formats he's worked in, Sims prefers film simply because it has the most prep time. Working on "Footloose" was especially exciting for him.

"'Footloose' was a lot of fun because I grew up in the '80s, so I knew the music, knew what the movie represented to me. To translate it and make it current was a huge thrill for me."

Now Sims is finding thrills in yet another new aspect of entertainment: directing.

"That's where my passion is right now," he said. "I'm currently putting together some projects that I'll be directing in the future."

They're all dance related, he said, but he hopes to branch out. "Eventually I'd like to do nondance stuff, but right now it's a natural fit for me."

Hall of fame induction events and schedule

The West Virginia All Black Schools Sports and Academic Hall of Fame 2012 induction weekend runs Aug. 9-11 at the Charleston Marriott Town Center. The event will honor 91 distinguished alumni of West Virginia black high schools and colleges as well as 23 vanguards, who are distinguished relatives of alumni.

The traveling Hall of Fame Museum is open in the grand ballroom from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Aug. 10 at no charge. The black-tie induction ceremony at 1 p.m. Aug. 11 also is free.

Ticketed events include a soul-food feast at 6 p.m. Aug. 9 for $10; a 7 p.m. dinner Aug. 10 with appearances by inductees Rodney D. Boyden, Ethel Caffie-Austin and Sims for $40; and a black-tie banquet and concert with Boyden and Caffie-Austin at 5 p.m. Aug. 11 for $50.

Tickets must be reserved by Aug. 7 by calling Helen Jackson-Gillison at 304-748-7116. They can be paid for and picked up at the door.

Reach Amy Robinson at flipside@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4881.


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